Mises Daily

If the State Falls, Does Society Crumble?

The lessons of Iraq pose challenges for our understanding of the state. Consider the gap that separates the Bush administration’s original theory with the reality on the ground today. The idea was that the Iraqi government would be “decapitated,” and that once Saddam and his few henchmen were crushed, the country could breathe free and get on with the business of building a great society.

He surely believed it, otherwise he and his team would have put something in place for what followed the overthrow, and otherwise he would not have held his victory dance in full flight gear after the invasion. No, he had a model in his mind of an oppressive dictator who ruled all mercilessly and by force alone. Bush figured that he could use more force than Saddam and that would be the end of it.

But now look! The country of Iraq is in civil war. Sunnis long for the days of Saddam. Shiites long for total power, and, as the majority, they figure that they might just get it, and use it against their historic enemies. The Christians and Jews have largely fled the country. And the tit-for-tat killing grows ever more gruesome. The US military is killing too: largely out of fear and in the belief that it is all in self-defense. Not a soldier on the ground wants to be there.

Thus did a simple theory of the state – kill the king and all will be well – fail. The Bush administration had the idea that the Iraqi state was somehow artificially imposed on an otherwise stable society. The reality is otherwise.

Which raises the question: just how integral is the state to society? Is it the case that we can expect every society that loses its state to fall into chaos such as Iraq is doing today?

Before we go there, let us first distinguish the state from society. The state is the only entity that is permitted to maintain a legal monopoly on the use of aggressive force. It therefore operates according to its own law. If you steal or kill, you get in trouble. The state steals and kills as part of its operating procedure, and there is no higher law to keep it in check. The same goes for its monopoly on “justice.” I am not permitted to chase down and punish a person who broke into my house, but rather the state presumes the prerogative of administering justice and allows no competition.

On the face of it, the role of the state – the legal monopolist on the use of aggressive force against person and property – is absurdly implausible. There is no obvious reason why any society should put up with it. Ah, but then ideology comes into play. We are told that the state serves high religious, philosophical, economic, or social-scientific ends. I won’t bother listing them because doing so would take up the rest of the article.

The point is that the state is unstable without an ideology to back it up, and convince people that it is necessary. But ideology is not all it needs. It must also put together a matrix of interest-group privilege, as a means of placating the opposition. The state can kill some of its enemies but it can’t ever kill all (as the US is discovering in Iraq). What it must do is co-opt them into a variety of arrangements – usually financial – that reap mutual benefit. In this sense, the state is pushed into the role of a capitalist of sorts. It seeks out trades as a means of making people less hostile and, the state hopes, garnering friends and defenders as far and wide as possible.

For more on this, see the State of the Union address.

So on one hand, the state is always in a unique position as the sole entity that can legally steal, beat, and hang. On the other hand, it must also cultivate other talents in order to win over the population, lest it be overthrown. If it fails to do so, it will fall, maybe not immediately but eventually. For examples, you can see the history of the Soviet Union or the current history of the US in Iraq. These are two states that were unable to maintain a sufficiently sophisticated matrix of ideological support combined with a matrix of interest-group payoffs that are necessary to survive.

Saddam, on the other hand, was very careful to cultivate both necessary pillars of state stability. Yes, he killed enemies, but his preferred method was to buy them off in some way. He had all important religious leaders on the payroll, and helped religious minorities when they needed it. He was generous with public works and maintained the semblance of law and order. He walked a thin line, avoiding religious extremism while not going overboard in Western-style liberalism to risk his rule. He also cultivated an Iraqi-style nationalism to cover the ideological angle.

The Saddam state, then, was not an organic part of society but it had managed to weave itself carefully into the political, cultural, and economic fabric of the nation – as a means of survival. This is what the Bush administration had overlooked. Once Saddam was gone, the glue that held together the factions and groups was gone. The result is what you see today.

Let us return, then, to our original question. Is it the case that any overthrow of the state risks turning society into a current-day Iraq? The answer is no. You see, the Bush administration’s fateful error was not in overthrowing Saddam (I’m leaving aside the issue of imperialism here: the law of nations allows no state the right to overthrow foreign despots). Rather, the fateful error of the Bush administration was in attempting to create a new state.

This is what cannot be done, and the very possibility of a new central state is precisely what has set off the bloodshed. It is not the case that the groups in Iraq cannot get along. What they cannot do is get along under a central state ruled by some other group. This is the basis of the bloodshed.

So what should happen? The US should abandon Baghdad. It should, in effect, allow the country to “fall apart” in the same way that Gorbachev let his empire dissolve. Iraq would split into many states, some of them noncontiguous. Governing units of all shapes and sizes would appear. The main reason for the ghastly killing – fear of the rule by one group over another – would vanish. Here is the highest hope for peace in Iraq.So long as the US insists that Iraq be a single nation under one government, it will inspire chaos and killing. Bush was wrong, but in a way that is usually not understood. His mistake was not in overthrowing the state but in hoping to create and control a new one.
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